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Book Review – The Bride Ships

January 17, 2011

The Bride Ships by Rica EricksonThe Bride Ships – Experiences of Immigrants Arriving in Western Australia 1849-1889 by Rica Erickson, 1992, Hesperian Press.

When I bought this book, I had a bit of a grumble about the title of the book (Bride Ships) and the sub-title (Experiences of Immigrants…) and the invisibilising of gender.  I was wrong.

The title  refers to a period of time (1849-1889) in Western Australian history, when the government and some of the older settlers were trying to encourage an influx of young single women into the colony – primarily for the purposes of providing domestic service, but also to balance out the gender imbalance in the colony.  As it turns out there were mixed results.  Ships did arrive with single women aboard.  But as Rica Erickson records the arrival of each ship, it looks like every ship bearing young single women also bore a similar number (sometimes more) of young single men, and married couples with or without children.  So the gender balance in the colony was not really addressed.  On a number of years the ‘outflux’ of migrants was as great or greater than the ‘influx’, and some of the young women brought to the colony were of ‘dubious’ character.  Some of the people engaged to  carefully select the young women who could emigrate were more interested in the money per head they received, and filling the passenger quotas on the ships than they were in the ‘quality’ of the passengers.

This is a really engaging and interesting book.  My original reasons for buying it were because a couple of my great-great-great-grandmothers were young single women who travelled to Australian colonies (specifically New South Wales and Victoria when it was still part of New South Wales), and I thought it might shed some light on the kinds of experiences they might have had.

But what I gained from this book was more than that.  The book is specifically about the Swan River Colony, Western Australia and it looks at a whole lot of historical and social events and changes that took place in the colony over the period, and what they meant for the people arriving as well as the people already here.

A lot of the action takes place on a block of land behind the old Perth Boys School, known as Reveley’s Mill – on St Georges Terrace between William Street and King Street, but facing the southern, river side, where Mounts Bay Road is now.  At the time, though, the river in that part of the town/city had not been reclaimed, something that happened later and the river came almost right up to that block and the jetties where the boats landed that brought immigrants from Fremantle were at the ends of Barrack Street and William Street.  That block of land, Reveley’s Mill was where an Immigrant Depot was created to accommodate people when they first arrived off the ships.  What is interesting about that, to me, is that I currently work on a building directly next to that exact spot.  I go there every day and my window looks out over the back of the old Perth Boys School and the construction of a building on that exact spot.  A painting of ‘my house and garden‘ and the mill itself, painted by HW Reveley is in the National Library of Australia collection.

The Bride Ships is a book in two parts.  The first part is a sequential account of the events and people of the time, as the ships arrived.  This part is fascinating – or it certainly was for me.  It is the first Western Australian history I have read that really brought to life my own surroundings.  I found myself walking through the city to work, past the Wesley Church and other buildings discussed in this section of the book, past the Old Perth Boys School, to my office, looking out my window on the huge construction site next door and the river beyond, and imagining just what it was like to be in this city at that time.

The second section consists of a collection of family history vignettes on particular families of ticket-of-leave men and ‘bride ship’ women who helped to shape the colony and whose ancestors are or may still be here today.

This section was less fascinating to me, but for a descendent of one or more of these families, it would be invaluable.  One family recorded, however is that of John Kirwan Richards, a convict who came to Western Australia aboard the Pyrenees in 1851, and who married Julia Tighe, one of the Irish needlewomen who came to Western Australia aboard the Clara in September 1853.  Naturally, as his first and middle name are the same as my great-great-great grandfather, John Kirwan, and the fact that he was a protestant, make him a subject for further research for me.  I would not have known of his existence had I not read this book.

John Kirwan was an Enrolled Pensioner Guard who arrived on the first convict ship to arrive in Western Australia, the Scindian (1 June 1850).  I wondered if John Kirwan and John Kirwan Richards were related to each other, of course, but also if they were from the same area in Ireland, and whether they knew or knew of, each other in Ireland.  As a convict and a convict guard in such a small colony, arriving only a year apart, they would surely have come across each other in the colony.  Whether John Kirwan would have been aware of the middle name of the convict Richards of course is not certain.

Rica Erickson records (p. 44) that:

Disparity of the sexes remained as problematical as ever.  At Perth and Fremantle there were only forty four single women to every hundred single men.  In country districts for every hundred marriageable men there were only fifteen single women.  the Census of 1859 for the York district lists nearly three times as many ticketers as free single men.  Three quarters of the immigrant girls who went to York before 1860 were to marry ticketers.

It is no wonder then, that William Wade, arriving in 1841 at the age of 18, waited until he met Eliza Kirwan in 1850, before deciding to marry.  Marriageable women were in short supply.

When I read books such as this one, I end up with more questions than answers.  Or with some of my questions answered, and a new batch of questions.  My oldest and most difficult brickwall so far has been George Jones, the man who married my great-great grandmother, Emily Bertha Eliza Peck.  Emily’s daughter, Alice, my great-grandmother, was nine years old when Emily and George married.  The ages given on the marriage certificate are not accurate – by a long way – Emily is recorded as being older than George.  The dates on George’s death certificate are also not accurate – this presumably being to cover the fact that George and Emily were not married before Alice was born.

George gives his place of birth as Victoria on their marriage certificate, but on his death certificate the informant has recorded him as having been born in Tasmania and Western Australia.  He was in New South Wales when he married Emily, and at the time that he rescued/saved a horse when the ship they were travelling on to the Melbourne Cup ran aground, he was transporting horses from somewhere to Victoria.

I have occasionally wondered if perhaps George was either a convict or his parents were convicts, this being more likely.  Reading this book, and the background that Rica Erickson gives to the prejudices and stigma attached to a convict background and/or ancestry in the colonies, it would go a long way to explaining the discrepancies in George’s certificates.

When I asked an older relative, a descendent of George and Emily, if she was aware that Alice was nine when Emily and George married, she told me firmly ‘some skeletons are best left in the closet’.  I was unsure if the skeleton was ‘illegitimate birth’ or some other skeleton, but I didn’t probe any further.

Thankfully the stigma of convict ancestry and pre-marital births are no longer considered a source of shame or embarrassment.  The Bride Ships shows in some detail in the second section of the book, the contributions that ex-convicts and their descendants have made to Western Australia in particular, but this would translate to any of the colonies that convicts were brought to, but also to the other, ‘free’ colonies, such as South Australia.  Many ex-convicts from Western Australia left to go to Victoria and South Australia, in search of employment, better work conditions, and to escape the stigma of their past.

Rica Erickson’s account of the ‘outflux’ of Western Australian colonists to other colonies has gone a long way to explain why John Kirwan and his family may have made the huge move of resettling in South Australia so few years after moving the whole family from Ireland/England.

I would recommend this book to anyone with an interest in the early days of British settlement in  Australian colonies, and certainly anyone with an interest in the social aspects of life in the colonies or in Western Australia in particular.  It is detailed, heavily referenced, and written in an engaging, narrative format that makes it hard to put down.

Several of the books I bought in my little book shopping spree recently were from Hesperian Press.  I am now fervently searching for a similar publishing company in Victoria, South Australia and New South Wales, in particular, and probably even Tasmania.  If you are reading this and know of a similar publishing house, please comment and let me know.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Susan Hazell permalink
    January 25, 2012 7:11 pm

    Hi There, My name is Susan Hazell and I am currently doing research into my ancestors in Australia. My GGGGrandmother and Father were sent to Tasmania from Yorkshire and Ireland in 1825 and 1816. They had a son William Carr McCasker who was three years old when his mother Mary McCasker was murdered by aboriginals in Tasmania. It is believed he somehow was taken to WA after her death in 1831. He grew up to marry a Mary Ann Elizabeth Broad in WA. I think she may have been one of the women on the Brides Ships. I have found a Broad Family mentioned and would like to research this story further to try and discover ore information on William. I will endeavour the book from the Library. Thankyou for your contribution. I found it very helpful.

  2. Michelle permalink*
    January 25, 2012 10:54 pm

    Hi Susan Thank you for commenting. The book is definitely available from the WA State Library Book Shop. I think you can order it from them online – or indeed from Hesperian Press direct. If you are not in Perth and have trouble getting hold of it, let me know and I’ll try to help. On page 34 the book mentions John Broad. “He and his family stayed a short time at Reveley’s Mill Depot” They arrived on the “Will Watch”. The Broad Family are the subject of Chapter 10 – “The Broad Family of the Will Watch – From the Avon to the Murchison”. John Broad migrated to WA with his wife (Ann Strange/Straines). Their children were James (born before they were married) Richard, Henry, John and an infant (not named on the migration application) who appears to have been a girl, Jean. There also appears to have been a Robert and and Edward, and a Henry Broad who was a nephew of John Broad Snr returned with him from England when he went home to visit. If any of these people sound like your family, this book will be very useful for you.
    Good luck!

    • Susan Hazell permalink
      January 26, 2012 8:27 am

      Thanks so much Michelle:)

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